Photographs of parents posing next to their dead children and the sound of dripping water simulating ice melting over a decomposing body are both disturbing and heart-breaking components of a new exhibition at the Merchant House Museum.
"Memento Mori" includes more than 50 postmortem memorial photographs and ephemera from the Burns Archive which is considered to be the largest private archive of historic photography. The exhibition also includes modern takes on memorial photography.
Postmortem photographs became popular after the introduction of photography in the mid-19th century. Although it seems morbid, photographs of the dead were done out a desire to preserve an image of a loved one.
"These portraits were not for public consumption," said Dr. Stanley B. Burns, 72, the archives' owner. "They were held very close to the chest."
In many cases, especially with children, family members often died before relatives had an opportunity to take their portraits.
"It's macabre but it doesn't creep me out," said Vincent Warren, 72, a library curator from Montreal, Canada. Warren happened upon the exhibition while touring the Merchant House Museum, a historic Federal style row house in Manhattan's East Village built in 1832.
Warren said the exhibition makes him think about the tremendous grief parents must have experienced when they lost their children.
"It wasn't easy," he noted. "It's sad, that's what it is. We're all going to turn to dust."
The Merchant House Museum was home to a single family for more than 100 years and still includes the house's original furniture and decorations. However, one thing is missing: postmortem photography. In particular, there were no postmortem photographs of Seabury Tredwell, the patriarch of the family. As a result, photographer Hal Hirshorn. 45, created his own vision of the Tredwell wake scene.
Hirshorn uses an old-fashioned salt-and-gelatin developing technique in his modern-day work. For him, it was a rare opportunity to use his 19th century style in the museum's 19th century environment. Hirshorn's seven photographs taken in the Merchant House Museum show the possible wake scene, including female models posing as Tredwell's mourning widow and daughter.
Memento Mori Exhibit
"Death really happened at home," said Eva Ulz, the museum's education and communications manager. She compared it to today when wakes and memorial services are held in funeral parlors outside the private home.
The idea that a family lived and mourned their dead relatives was part of the inspiration for artist Sarah Lohman's exhibition component.
Lohman's idea for the disturbing and distracting sound of dripping water in one of the Merchant bedrooms comes from a passage by Dr. Burns in his postmortem photography book Sleeping Beauty II: "When a body was laid out over ice in her family's parlor, the sound of melting ice dripping into pans kept her awake. To this very day, dripping sounds brings back to her the memories of dead bodies and sleepless nights."
"The idea that something as everyday as a dripping faucet could conjure up such a powerful image of death intrigued me," Lohman explained. "Life is a multi-sensory experience; I believe that invoking these senses to connect with people of the past is a very powerful teaching tool."